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MOSCOW (Reuters Life!) - Ever dream of having Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk play on your top line? Few, if any, in the National Hockey League (NHL) would refuse such an offer.
Various fantasy leagues have been a hot item for fans around the world for years and now millions of Russian sports enthusiasts can also follow their favorite players on a daily basis with the introduction of the online game Hockey-Boss.ru.
"We kicked off this project on September 1 to coincide with the start of the Continental Hockey League's (KHL) inaugural season," Dennis Adamovich, executive director of the parent company Russian Super Sports, told Reuters.
"Unlike similar fantasy hockey games in the United States that use the NHL players, our product is geared specifically for the Russian market."
Adamovich said he got the idea of developing the fantasy hockey league in Russia almost by chance.
"In 2004, (the chocolate bar) Snickers started a fantasy league in Finland during the world ice hockey championship, and the first year more than 200,000 people, which is nearly 2.5 percent of the entire population in Finland, played the game.
"So we thought, why not do this on a seasonal basis and Russia seems like a perfect place to do it," he said.
"Russia is a hockey country, it also has a huge potential as far as internet and other online services are concerned for companies advertising their products."
Industry experts estimate that in 2008 cumulative advertising budgets in Russia will generate $650 million.
Like many in the industry, Adamovich was apprehensive about the global financial crisis that has hit businesses on the both sides of the Atlantic.
"It's true that the advertising industry is feeling the crunch, with a 30 percent overall decline very conceivable next year," he said.
Adamovich, however, also sees certain advantages for internet companies during the crisis.
"In a recession, fans are more inclined to watch games on television or follow them on the internet so they'll probably be interested in playing the fantasy games too," said the American businessman, who along with a group of private investors has invested 1.5 million euros in the project.
While there are a few other fantasy games, such as Webhl.ru or Hockeyarena.net.ru on the Russian market, Adamovich said his game will be attractive for genuine hockey fans as well as newcomers.
"We have a beginners' league, a Division Two, where almost anyone can play," he said.
"All you have to do is pick three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie and get your team registered free of charge. You could even play with three players on one team if you want.
"We'll soon have an advanced league, Division One, for knowledgeable fans. Like a real general manager, they can draft up to 16 players, they can also trade, buy or sell their players on a regular basis."
Despite shrinking advertising revenues, Adamovich pledged his company would not advertise gambling or pornography the site.
"Obviously, our audience is male-oriented, with a minimum age of 14, so by law we can't advertise casinos or strip clubs."
Hockey-Boss now has 10,000 registered players and Adamovich hoped it would hit the 50,000 mark in the first year.
"The game is designed to give every player a fair chance of winning," he said.
"We developed a different system, the so-called mini-season, which starts afresh each month. This way people can join at any time and still win. Each month the winner gets 4,000 roubles ($145) in cash as well as other prizes."
For those who are playing from the beginning, the rewards are much higher.
"The top prize for the regular season winner would be a new car or a trip for two to the 2009 world ice hockey championship in Switzerland," he said.
If the project is successful, Adamovich plans to create a similar fantasy game for Russian soccer.
"Soccer is the number one sport in this country from Moscow to Vladivostok, followed by millions of people on a daily basis. If properly organized, fantasy soccer has a potential to grow into something very very big," he said.